MERLDA MACE – Motto for Murder. Julian Messner, hardcover, 1943. Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint, 3-in-1 edition, November 1943. Black Cat Detective #17, digest-sized paperback, 1945, abridged.
The classic situation — isolated old house, blizzard raging outside, nasty old lady hated by most of those in the house, and escalating murders.
Maria Hammond, the nasty old lady, has complete control of the family fortune and need not turn over any money until she is convinced that her grandchildren can handle the money responsibly. Since one of her children is a drunk who has married a money-hungry shrew and who has stolen $10,000 from the firm for which he works to provide the shrew with a fur coat in the hope that she will treat him kindly — a failed scheme, needless to say — it appears that the old lady is not completely in the wrong in not turning over the money at least to him.
Anyhow, she invites the three grandchildren to spend Christmas with her, and two of the spouses also show up. Her intention, violating the spirit of the season and maybe even the letter of the law, is to tell the grandchildren she is changing her will so that they will be totally disinherited. Her lawyer is murdered, she disappears, and others start being murdered.
Tip O’Neil, who works with the ne’er-do-well grandson, goes along for the weekend to make sure that the grandson does not run off to Canada. Since O’Neil is the only one not concerned in the murders, he does the investigating. On page 148, he says to himself: “Maybe it would be healthier for me to play dumb … on this investigation.” Strange. I had the feeling that is what he had been doing from the beginning.
One among many oddities appears to be a peculiar law of New York State in regard to wills. O’Neil is asked to witness “the will” of Maria Hammond. While watched by her lawyer, O’Neil signs a piece of paper folded back so he can’t see what is written on it. He can’t be sure it’s a will, and he certainly isn’t witnessing her signing it.
Deeck’s Law No. 1 states: Beware of authors who use exclamation points frequently in narrative! Mace is a big violator!
(A motto, by the way, is a piece of candy around which is wrapped a fortune, making it somewhat similar to a fortune cookie. It was apparently old-fashioned even in 1945.)
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.
Bibliographic Notes: This was the only novel that Timothy “Tip” O’Neil appeared in. His day job was as a special investigator for a Manhattan-based investment firm. The author’s other two mysteries featured a continuing series character named Christine Anderson. She may have been the blonde in Blondes Don’t Cry, but other than that, no other information is readily available.
MERLDA MACE. Pseudonym of Madeleine McCoy, 1910?-1990?
Headlong for Murder. Messner, 1943. [Christine Anderson]
Motto for Murder. Messner, 1943.
Blondes Don’t Cry. Messner, 1945 [Christine Anderson]
TIMOTHY HARRIS – Good Night and Good-Bye. Delacorte, hardcover, 1979. Dell, paperback, 1980. TV movie: CBS, 1988, as Street of Dreams (with Ben Masters as “Kyd Thomas.”)
A book more solidly “in the Raymond Chandler tradition” ishard to imagine. From the opening impact of the first page of Chapter One to the ending that comes as inevitably as the passage of time to its sadly depressing conclusion, there is not a single doubt that Timothy Harris has read, devoured, and assimilated the complete works of the master.
This is not meant as disparagement. The tone and style are Chandler’s. The prose and dialogue are not, quite, but if they aren’t, they are Harris’s own, in a revised and updated typically Californian tale of modern morality.
Private eye Thomas Kyd, like his Elizabethan namesake, may have a talent for melodrama, but he lives it as well, instead of just telling it. There is a girl named Laura, and it is she whom the story is about. She is a junkie, and a liar, and she is in trouble.
She meets Kyd, who helps, but she marries a wealthy movie writer named Paul Sassari instead. He is murdered soon after. As she says, “People don’t get much out of knowing me.”
Kyd is a master of lost causes, a Sir Galahad on horse-back, a champion of ladies in distress, but, as he soon discovers, he is not truly a denizen of the fast, jet-paced world of drugs, easy money, and expensive women.
On the other hand, since he is familiar with life in the shade of shabby sidewalks and sordid secrets, he almost makes out okay. Finer entertainment for the confirmed private eye aficionado is also hard to imagine.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981 (very slightly revised).
Bio-Bibliographic Notes: There was but one other book in the series: Kyd for Hire (Dell, paperback, 1978) but published earlier in the UK in hardcover as by Hyde Harris (Gollancz, 1977).
The two other books by Harris included in Hubin are paperback novelizations of movies:Steelyard Blues (1972) and Heat Wave (1979). According to IMDb, Harris was also the screenwriter for ten films, including Trading Places and Kindergarten Cop.
RICHARD HUGO – Death and the Good Life. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1981. Avon, paperback, 1982.
Hugo is a noted American poet, and this is his first mystery. His hero is a soft-hearted ex-cop from Seattle, and his name is Al Barnes. Since quitting his job in the city, he’s taken a deputy sheriff’s position in the small town of Plains, Montana.
That’s right. Montana. Not Georgia. The Pacific North-west is rapidly becoming a hotbed of detective-story activity. You can add another pretty good one to the list.
The first murder is an axe-killing, and so’s the second, but it doesn’t seem to fit the pattern. The trail leads Barnes back to Oregon, and once there, deep into the past. It takes a gut feeling for the truth to work a scent almost twenty years old, and that Barnes has. Memories are not always pleasant ones, but some of the ones he dredges up are particularly nasty ones.
The prose is right, and Barnes’ instincts for the job are never far from wrong, but the story still doesn’t click the way it’s supposed to. Strangely enough, it’s the rhythm, the beat, that’s off. This is essentially a private eye story, and it’s a crucial factor. This one just misses.
Rating: B minus.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 3, May/June 1981. This review also appeared earlier in the Hartford Courant
Note: This was Richard Hugo’s only mystery novel. He died of leukemia in 1982, at the relatively young age of 58.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
Usually this column deals with work by others: novels, stories, movies, whatever. This month, for starters anyway, it deals with me, or more precisely my latest book. Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law is a hefty tome that brings together various pieces I’ve written over the past quarter century on law-related fiction, films and TV.
I admit up front that a few of the book’s chapters, for example the one on “Telejuriscinema, Frontier Style,” have nothing to do with the detective-crime genre, unless you include in that genre all sorts of TV Western series from The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid to Kung Fu.
But many of the pre-Production Code movies that get picked apart in “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” belong to the genre in one way or another — even if I eccentrically insist on calling them juriscinema — and there are long individual chapters on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and Erle Stanley Gardner, the lawyer storytellers who dominated what I eccentrically insist on calling jurisfiction from the tail end of the 19th century until Gardner’s death in 1970.
There’s also a chapter on the three versions of the Cape Fear story, beginning with John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel The Executioners and proceeding through the two vastly different movies called Cape Fear: the 1962 picture with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.
Also included are my takes on the fascinating if almost completely unknown court-martial filmMan in the Middle (1964), with Mitchum playing a sort of Philip Marlowe in khaki, and on the equally obscure The Penalty Phase (1986), one of the last films directed by Tony Richardson, with Peter Strauss starring as a liberal judge faced with the nightmare of having to release a psychopath who raped and murdered seventeen young girls.
The publisher of this volume is Perfect Crime Books, which also put out my Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013), and I see on the Web that it’s been submitted for Edgar consideration to MWA.
Did anyone notice? In the previous paragraph I referred to Arthur Train (1875-1945) as a lawyer storyteller but not as an author of crime or detective stories. Why? Because Train himself insisted that he didn’t write in that genre and had little interest in it. But many of his stories about attorney Ephraim Tutt and his entourage have to do with trials for murder or other serious crimes, and at least a few of them seem to me, and not just to me, to deserve a place in the genre we love.
The earliest of these is “The Hand Is Quicker Than the Eye,” the fifth tale in the Mr. Tutt series, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post for August 30, 1919, and collected in Tutt and Mr. Tutt(Scribner, 1920). Ephraim also operates as both lawyer and sleuth in a number of other tales first published in the Post and later included in one or another Scribner collection, for example “The Acid Test” (June 12, 1926; Page Mr. Tutt, 1926) and “The King’s Whiskers” (December 30, 1939; Mr. Tutt Comes Home, 1941).
My own favorite among the Mr. Tutt stories that include significant detection is “With His Boots On” (September 12, 1942; Mr. Tutt Finds a Way, 1945). That’s the one I chose a number of years ago when Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine editor Cathleen Jordan asked me to select and introduce a story about Ephraim for its Mystery Classic reprint series.
Ms. Jordan thought the tale was seriously flawed — although she died before she could explain her reasons to me — and instead we settled on “‘And Lesser Breeds Without the Law’,” which struck me as only marginally crime fiction. This is one of a very few tales in the series that the Saturday Evening Post rejected. Why? In the 1920s another magazine owned by the same publisher had serialized a Zane Grey novel that was not only sympathetic to what were then called American Indians but ended with the Navajo hero marrying the white woman he loved.
So many benighted readers were so outraged that the publisher adopted a new policy: NO MORE POSITIVELY PORTRAYED REDSKINS! EVER!!! That policy was still in force when Train submitted his story, which was set on New Mexico’s Cocas Pueblo reservation and anticipates the treatment of Native Americans that we tend to identify with Tony Hillerman. The tale appeared as an original in the Train collection Mr. Tutt Comes Home (1941) and never came out in a magazine until AHMMfor February 2002.
Not quite that long ago, when I was commissioned to write an essay on the poetry-crime fiction interface for the Poetry Foundation website, I decided that this column was the ideal place for material (of which there was a bunch) that wound up on the electronic cutting room floor.
In recent years I haven’t run across any items that would justify reviving the old Poetry Corner feature, but now I have. Remember the world-famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)? One of his classic early poems was “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a work consisting of twelve lines divided into three stanzas, written in 1888 and first published two years later.
Rex Stout, who needs no introduction here, considered Yeats “the greatest poet of the century.” (I assume he meant the 20th century.) In August 1943, a few years after Yeats’ death, Stout wrote “Booby Trap,” fifth of the Nero Wolfe novelets, which appeared in American Magazine for August 1944 and was included in the Farrar & Rinehart collection Not Quite Dead Enough not long afterwards.
It’s one of the very few tales in the saga where Wolfe is working without pay as a civilian consultant to Army Intelligence and Archie Goodwin has become a major in the same branch of service. The hijacking of industrial trade secrets shared with the military for war purposes leads to the murder of a captain and a colonel, the latter taken out by a powerful hand grenade right in G2′s New York headquarters.
The tale like so many of Stout’s is hopelessly unfair to the reader, with Wolfe fingering the culprit by the lazy old expedient of setting a trap and seeing who springs it, but for sheer readability it still holds up nicely after almost 75 years.
All well and good, you may be saying, but where’s Yeats? Good question! In Chapter 4 Archie finds a sheet of paper containing a typed copy of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which for no earthly reason whatsoever is printed in the text. Its only plot significance is that both Wolfe and Archie immediately notice that it was typed on the same typewriter that produced an anonymous letter earlier in the story.
Sharing that information with the reader didn’t require printing a line of Yeats’ poem, let alone the complete work. We know from John McAleer’s Rex Stout: A Biography (1977) — which misleadingly states that Stout quoted only the first “three stanzas” —that Yeats’ U.S. publisher raised a stink when the story appeared in print. Here’s how Stout explained to his Farrar & Rinehart editor.
“I am an ass. When I was writing ‘Booby Trap,’ out in the country, I phoned somebody at Macmillan to ask if it would all right to quote that poem … and was told that it would be. But I made no record of the conversation, I don’t know the date that it took place, and I don’t know whom I talked to. Beat that for carelessness if you can, and let me know which jail I go to.”
McAleer doesn’t tell us how the matter was resolved, but most likely Stout had to pay Macmillan some money. The poem must still have been protected by copyright in 1944, but it’s been in the public domain for decades and can be found online in a few seconds. On YouTube you can even hear Yeats reading it.
The city of Ferguson is about 15 miles and 20 minutes’ drive from my home in St. Louis’ Central West End. While I was working on this column, Ferguson exploded. Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about the events and I see no reason to add to them except to quote a passage from Ellery Queen’s non-series novel The Glass Village (1954) where the protagonist reflects “that man was a chaos without rhyme or reason; that he blundered about like a maddened animal in the delicate balance of the world, smashing and disrupting, eager only for his own destruction.”
If Thanksgiving week was a sad time for reason and common sense, Thanksgiving Day was especially sad for our genre. P.D. James, one of the last great English detective novelists, died peacefully at her Oxford home. She was 94 and still thinking about writing one more novel. Peace be upon her.
CHRISTOPHER BUSH – The Case of the Platinum Blonde. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1949. First published by Cassell, UK, hardcover, 1944.
My copy of this novel is a previously owned one. One of the former owners wrote on the first page, “Good to the last suspect.” I quite agree with the anonymous reader that it’s a good mystery, but Ludovic Travers in this outing is not a very appealing detective. Perhaps the pain from his recently acquired war injury makes him irascible and thus rather irritating.
Travers is convalescing at his sister’s home in the village of Cleavesham. In his rambles around the village he notices a man putting up a sign on another man’s house, a sign saying, among other things, “REMEMBER — THIS NIGHT SHALL THY SOUL BE REQUIRED OF THEE.”
The next day Travers finds the occupant of the house in his living room with a bullet in his head. Because Travers loves “ironic situations and even creating them,” he toys with the evidence and does not reveal all to the police. And then he discovers that the wife of the Chief Constable, a man whom he admires, may be involved somehow.
An interesting investigation by Travers, along with his friendly rival, George Wharton of Scotland Yard. But it would have been a better novel if Travers had been better behaved.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.
Bibliographic Notes: Over a period of 42 years, from 1926 to 1968, Bush wrote over 60 detective novels under his own name, all with Ludovic Travers as the leading detective. Superintendent Wharton may have been his rival and ally in all of them as well, but this is not so indicated by Hubin. Bush also wrote a small numbers of crime and thrilelr novels as by Noel Barclay and Michael Home.
Miss Jessie Milk, spinster of uncertain age and kin to the distressed gentlewomen so well portrayed by Barbara Pym, finds somewhat unsuitable employment as a receptionist at the Bellevue Hotel, which does not live up to its name and which the police have nothing against, muddle and unconventionality not yet being against the law. The Bellevue caters, if that’s the mot juste, to the less eminent variety performers.
Gene the Genie, a magician and one of the not-quite-successful artistes, primarily because of his interest in horse-flesh and not because of lack of talent or imagination, checks into the hotel with his wife and his female assistant the first afternoon Miss Milk is on duty. He plays a trick on her then and becomes aware that she is a perfect foil for a magician.
When first Gene the Genie’s assistant and then his wife disappear, Miss Milk is an excellent witness. When the wife’s body turns up in the trash, the police are baffled by Miss Milk’s testimony but accept her transparent honesty in telling things as she believes she saw them. Fortunately, a retired Merchant Navy Captain, now a bookstore detective, lives in the hotel and has Miss Milk’s interests at heart in more ways than one. He is able to determine what happened, although it’s not by any means all ratiocination.
Well written, amusing, excellent characterization, and an interesting crime. All of Cullingford’s novels are well worth trying to find.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.
Bibliographic Notes: Guy Cullingford was the pen name of (Alice) C(onstance) Lindsay Taylor, 1907-2000, who has one title in Hubin under her own name, and ten as by Cullingford. Of the latter, only four have been published in the US. In spite of the possibilities suggested by Conjurer’s Coffin, there seems to be no series character appearing in any more than one of them.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.
A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.
Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.
For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.
Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.
There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.
A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.
According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.
Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.
If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.
But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).
The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.
Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.
Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.
I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.
But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.
Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.
VALENTINE WILLIAMS and DOROTHY RICE SIMS – Fog. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1933; Popular Librar #76, paperback, n. d. . Film: Columbia, 1933 (starring Mary Brian, Donald Cook and Reginald Denny).
The S. S. Barbaric lives up to its name as three of its passengers are strangled en route from New York to England. The first is the irascible millionaire Alonzo Holt, who wouldn’t have sailed if he had known that the son he never knew, his estranged second wife, and the charlatan who used to conduct seances for him were aboard.
While there is an occasional good sentence — for example, “The curious delusion that the ability to amass wealth implies a disposition to distribute it in charity, deserving or undeserving, attracts shoals of beggars to the millionaire’s door” — the authors have overwritten throughout. Worse, none of the characters ring true, except for the bridge fanatic, nicknamed Sitting Bull. Still worse, the hero spots the murderer through a clue provided by the heroine, who could not possibly have been in possession of the information she gave him.
Skip this one unless you’re a real nostalgia buff.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES: This is co-author Dorothy Rice Sims only entry in Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. Valentine Williams was a far more prolific writer of crime ad detective fiction. There is a very extensive article about him on Mike Grost’s Classic Mystery and Detection website. Highly recommended!
PostScript. It belatedly occurred to me that I had been lazy, and that I should have investigated into more about Mrs. Sims. It turns out that there is quite a bit more to say.
“Dorothy Rice Sims was born June 24, 1889 at Asbury Park NJ. From her teens, Dorothy was active in competition, holding the motorcycle speed championship for women (1911) and becoming one of the first U.S. aviatrixes, in which capacity she met and married ACBL Hall of Fame Member P. Hal Sims.
“She was a noted sculptress, painter and author in fields other than bridge, though she wrote several bridge books. She is widely credited with inventing the psychic bid, but probably initiated only the popular name for it. However, she wrote her first book on the subject, Psychic Bidding, 1932.”
Though he died in 1956 and wrote only one true mystery novel, A. A. Milne is a writer who keeps cropping up. As parents we likely have read his Winnie-the-Pooh stories to our children. As mystery fans we probably have read his classic novel, The Red House Mystery, and Raymond Chandler’s devastating criticism of it in “The Simple Art of Murder.”
Milne wrote other works that fall into our genre, including his very first sale as a free-lance writer, a delightful little Holmesian parody, “The Rape of the Sherlock” (1903). He also wrote several plays with mystery elements, including one, The Perfect Alibi (1928), which is clearly a forerunner of Sleuth, Witness for the Prosecution, and Death Trap.
Though it is long out of print, Milne’s Autobiography(1939) is worth searching for in your local library. It’s a delightfully witty picture of someone growing up in Victorian England. At one point Milne remarks that “Very few Victorians were on Christian name terms with each other; Holmes, after twenty years of intimacy, was still calling his colleague Watson.”
Finishing a chapter on how he writes, Milne provides some clever, though helpful, advice to those of us with authorial ambitions:
“For myself I have now no faith in miraculous conception. I have given it every chance. I have spent many mornings at Lord’s hoping that inspiration would come, many days on golf courses; I have even gone to sleep in the afternoon, in case inspiration cared to take me by surprise, In vain. The only way I can get an “idea” is to sit at my desk and dredge for it. This is the real labour of authorship with which no other labour in the world is comparable.”
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.
ELIZABETH HELY – A Mark of Displeasure. Scribner, hardcover, 1960. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1961.
Visiting Edinburgh, Scotland, for the first time, Commissaire Antoine Cirret of the Paris Sûreté is somewhat bemused. The references to the weather by everyone he meets lead him, temporarily, to believe that many of the inhabitants of that city are weather fetishists.
In Edinburgh at the request of a friend to support him while he’s giving a concert, Cirret goes to sleep during the “Emperor Concerto.” This does not, Cirret would assure you, mean he does not think much of his friend’s technique; it’s just that he does not care that much about music.
Alec Trevor, the friend and pianist, also has friends in the city, one of whom dies while leaving the concert. Except for Cirret’s curiosity, the murder of a not-much-loved widow by nicotine poisoning would not have been detected.
The poisoner is known to the reader and maybe to Cirret. Since she is also a friend of Trevor’s, Cirret disturbs the musician by wanting to investigate the case. Actually, Cirret doesn’t care who did it; he, as a humanitarian, merely wants no repetition of the crime.
Hely presents a wicked but well-liked murderess whose motives are, she assures herself, of the highest, and a delightful detective in Cirret, who looks much like a monkey and may have that creature’s sense of humor. There aren’t that many French detectives that I have enjoyed reading about, but Cirret is an exception.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.
Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Elizabeth Hely was the pen name of Nancy Elizabeth Brassey Leslie Younger, (1913-1981). Her criminous output as a writer consisted of three books in the Cirret series (see below), plus one standalone, The Long Shot (Heinemann, 1963).
The Commissaire Antoine Cirret series —
Dominant Third. Heinemann, UK, 1959. US title: I’ll Be Judge, I’ll Be Jury. Scribner, 1959.
A Mark of Displeasure. Heinemann, UK, 1961. Scribner, US, 1960.
Package Deal. Hale 1965. No US edition. TV movie: Universal, 1968, as The Smugglers (with Shirley Booth and Emilio Fernández as Inspector Cesare Brunelli).